Not to be confused with the 2014 remake, the original 1974 version of ‘The Gambler’ is crime drama film directed by Karel Reisz and starring James Caan, Paul Sorvino and Lauren Hutton. The orginal screenplay, written by James Toback, was described by the author as ‘blatantly biographical’; by his own admission, Toback gambled ‘recklessly, obsessively and secretly’ while teaching literature at the City College of New York.
In the film adaptation, Axel Freed (Caan) is a young, handsome and highly successful college professor, whose otherwise diverse life is dominated by a gambling addiction. Indebted to his bookmaker, Hips (Paul Sorvino), to the tune of $44,000 after an all-night gambling session, Freed borrows the money from his mother, Naomi (Jacqueline Brooks), a successful medical doctor.
However, rather than repaying his debt, Freed instead travels with his girlfriend Billie (Lauren Hutton) to Las Vegas, where he continues gambling. Predictably, he loses everything on a series of ill-conceived basketball bets. As the loan sharks, including the polite, but ominous, Carmine (Burt Young), start to circle, Freed bribes one of students, college basketball star Spencer Lewis, to deliberating limit, or ‘shave’, points in his next game.
His criminality pays off, leaving him ‘in the clear’ but, after leaving the gynasium, walks to a nearby black ghetto, where he deliberately starts a fight with a pimp (Antonio Fargas), only to be brutally slashed across the face by a prostitute. In the final frames, Freed catches sight of his reflection in a mirror and smiles, enigmatically, at the cut on his face.